Deja vu all over again

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One of these days our aldermen might realize that it would be more effective to debate initiatives before they sign them into law rather than months or years after.

Last week in Switzerland the mayor gave in to demands by the International Olympic Committee that the city agree to cover any cost overruns if it hosts the 2016 games. Immediately council critics charged that this was the work of a dictator ruling by decree. "I don't know where he gets the authority to do that," 41st Ward alderman Brian Doherty told the Trib. “We're supposed to be the watchdogs of the budget, and they've been very arrogant in doing whatever they want and not consulting us.”

Mayor Daley and Patrick Ryan, chairman of Chicago’s bid committee, say it’s a moot point because they have a plan to cover the expenses—but they can’t reveal exactly what it is because it’s a few months from being finished. “So it begs the question, why aren't they willing or able to share that plan with the City Council and the public at large now?” said Joe Moore, the 49th Ward alderman.

It also raises the question of exactly what authority Moore, Doherty, and the rest of the council granted Daley when they passed a broadly worded Olympics funding and land-use package two years ago, just after the mayor won reelection with more than 70 percent of the vote.

As activist and watchdog Hugh Devlin notes at the 24/7 North of Howard Watchers blog, in March 2007 the council agreed to back the city’s bid with as much as $500 million in taxpayer money. There was little debate or discussion of the details of the 130-page package, which included agreements with the school board and Park District for use of their property during the games. Too bad, since the ordinance also included language that may have given the mayor the power to do just about anything he damn well pleases in the name of the Olympics.

To read a PDF of the whole thing, click here and scroll down to page 99145. The relevant portion, as Devlin points out, reads thus: “The City Council hereby authorizes the Mayor of the City (the “Mayor”), or the Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, as the Mayor's designated representative ("Commissioner"), to execute and deliver . . . such further undertakings, agreements and documents as may be necessary or appropriate to the City's submission and implementation of its bid for the Olympic Games at the domestic and international levels.”

Critics such as Manny Flores, of the First Ward, argue that the ordinance specifically limits the city’s obligations to $500 million. Just to be sure, Flores says he’s going to introduce a new ordinance that sets the half-a-billion ceiling again.

But chairman Ryan says he’s known for some time that the city would have to agree to take on all the financial responsibility. And another alderman told me he and his colleagues had been told this months ago: “We knew this was coming,” he said. “But we still don’t have any details.”

Maybe that's because they didn’t ask for any.

Let’s recap: Behind closed doors the administration crafted a complicated ordinance that has a big impact on city life and the municipal budget, then presented it to the council for hasty approval. After little debate the aldermen complied. Some time later the implications of the ordinance came to light, and the aldermen said they were blindsided. When pressed, the administration still wouldn't say exactly what it was up to. Aldermen, facing unhappy voters in their wards, threatened to get angry and do something about it.

If this is sounding more and more like the parking meter mess, that’s because the parking meter mess went down like a whole lot of other deals in this city. What's different this time around is that, possibly because of the outrage inspired by the meters, the aldermen are moving faster than usual to respond.

Their timing's a bit off, but around here this looks like progress.

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